SACRAMENTO — A wealthy Riverside County Indian tribe has dropped its claim that it is exempt from state campaign disclosure laws and has agreed to publicly report its donations to politicians like all other special interest groups, state political watchdogs announced Friday.
To the relief of many tribal officials across the nation, the settlement reached between the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the Fair Political Practices Commission ends a lawsuit that otherwise could have gone to the U.S. Supreme Court. In December, the California Supreme Court ruled against Agua Caliente, and some feared the case ultimately would compromise the claims of tribes nationwide that, as sovereign entities, they have the power to govern themselves and are exempt from many state laws.
"Tribes did not want this case brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, because it could result in a wholesale attack on tribal sovereignty," said Howard Dickstein, an attorney who represents several California tribes that voluntarily disclose their donations to politicians. "There's a lesson to be learned about picking your fights."
Agua Caliente owns two casinos in Palm Springs and has spent $20 million on political campaigns since 2002. The tribe was sued by the FPPC in 2002 for failing to meet deadlines in the Political Reform Act for disclosing political donations and for lobbying activity from 1998 to 2002.
"We had to balance considerations for this tribe and other tribes as well," said tribal spokeswoman Nancy Conrad. "We decided this is not the day to take this fight forward."
Under the settlement, reached June 29 but only recently made public, Agua Caliente agreed not to appeal the California Supreme Court decision and to waive its sovereign immunity with respect to enforcement of state campaign disclosure laws. Agua Caliente is the only tribe in the state that has explicitly waived its sovereignty in such a manner.
The tribe also agreed to pay $200,000 to the state general fund, although under the terms of the settlement the payment is not considered a penalty.
"The outcome of this case shows that everyone who engages in the political process in California must adhere to the requirements of the Political Reform Act," said FPPC Chairman Ross Johnson.